Movies about heists are gimmick-driven things, which is why so few are worth remembering. They live and breathe on some corny and forced plot twist at the end -- "The crook is really a cop!" "The cop is really a crook!" -- because the rest of the movie is usually obvious and boilerplate. There are standard-issue shots of men in masks breaking into the bank/mansion/store, led by some crusty old expert who's famous for his heists, though not so famous that the cops have caught on, but he's having second thoughts about being in the business, and so on. You don't even have to see The Score to know how it goes, and Heist is David Mamet's dullest film - so dull it didn't even try to come up with an interesting title.
So, fair warning: Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 Le Cercle Rouge (in re-release by Rialto Pictures with a blessing by John Woo) is just a heist film. It has all the familiar elements detailed above. Why, then, is it a masterpiece?
Part of the reason is that it doesn't give a damn about issues of "loyalty" or "morality" or any of the other emotive junk that supposedly give Hollywood heist films depth. It certainly could care less about justice. All Le Cercle Rouge cares about is the (admittedly guilty) pleasure of looking at great crooks do great crimes. In this case, they're the grimy Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) and the suave, poker-faced Corey (Alain Delon), who meet each other in absurd circumstances. Vogel brashly escapes from the window of a moving train, where he's being ferried by Paris police captain Mattei (Andre Bourvil) for indictment. Escaping a massive manhunt, he hooks up with Corey, who himself has just been released from prison. Vogel takes refuge in the trunk of Corey's '69 Fury (where he still chooses to smoke, which says something about both the French and the trunk size of old Plymouths).
Their plan is to rob an upscale jewelry store in Paris, and for that they need an expert marksman, who arrives in the form of Jansen (Yves Montand). Montand is a joy here, and we first meet him in a shocking circumstance; the steady-handed and handsome star of the great Wages of Fear here plays a ruined alcoholic shivering with DTs. Hallucinating, he sees rats and lizards and other creepy-crawly things make their way into his bed to eat him alive.
The heist itself is an extended virtuoso sequence that speaks to Melville's complete confidence as a director, earned over decades; what Bullitt did for car chases, Le Cercle Rouge does for robberies. Done in almost complete silence - no background music, no talking - the three sneak into the jewelry store, tie up the watchman, and empty the stocks of necklaces and bracelets so elegantly it's like watching a love scene.
Like a lot of films that followed in Cercle's wake, Melville gives us authority figures who appear milquetoast and ignorant. We get Mattei losing Vogel on the train and wimpily feeding his cats before we get any sense that he does in fact know what he's doing. But Melville postpones the necessarily moral ending as much as possible. He gives us long seductive visions of the life of heels, none more seductive than Alain Delon in his tight trenchcoat and clenched lips. By 1970, Delon, Melville, and Montand were all stars best known for their youthfulness, but the have a composure and comfort in their roles that's deeply entrancing. More than anything else, Le Cercle Rouge reminds us that when it comes to these sort of roles, it's the criminal that matters, not the crime. Morality? Feh.
Still, the movie does have a moral, presented by the Paris police chief (Rene Berthier): "All men are guilty. They're born innocent, but it doesn't last. We all change for the worse." That's about as cynical as morals get, even by the standards of the world-weary, existential French. It practically suggests that there is no morality at all, and that we're doomed to sin and failure. It's no way to live, but it's license to make a great film that makes crooks look beautiful. Oh, sure, you'll get your comeuppance in the end, but even then you'll look gorgeous. Melville's seen to that.
Criterion adds a second DVD full of extras with this home video release. Included are countless archival and on-the-set vignettes, and two short items about Melville one includes excerpts from Cineastes de notre temps (a TV series with an episode on Melville), plus two modern interviews with his compadres. An extensive printed booklet rounds out the set, including a two page essay that speculates on just what the hell the title Le Circle Rouge is supposed to mean.